Intel Chefs Bake WiFi Into Mobile Chips

Researchers at Intel have come up with a way to make WiFi faster and more energy efficient.

It’s a chip called Rosepoint, and although it’s just a research project today, it could show up in mobile phones and laptop computers by the middle of the decade.

Rosepoint represents a breakthrough that Intel engineers have been hammering away at for years. They’ve been able to digitize little blocks of radio components in the past — things like amplifiers and synthesizers — but now they’ve managed to put a digital 2.4 GHz WiFi radio on a chip, right next to one of their low-power Atom central processing units (CPUs).

Building analog WiFi chips is a bit of an art. Radio Frequency (RF) chip designers build complex, customized circuits that operate on a continuum of voltages. The problem is that it’s often tough to shrink these analog designs down to the tiny scale that’s possible with today’s cutting-edge chipmaking processes.

Not so with digital RF chips, such as the one Intel’s just built. Digital RF chips are simpler. They have just two voltage levels and can be shrunk down much more easily whenever Intel’s researchers come up with a way to make chip parts smaller.

That’s good news for WiFi users. When Intel’s chips start to hit the market they will have “state of the art power efficiency” and superior signal quality, says Intel Chief Technology Officer Justin Rattner. And things will only get better as Intel shrinks things down. “With a digital approach to radio, you can bring the benefits of Moore’s law to RF and radio circuits,” he says.

Intel wants to build a digital cellular radio chip too, in the “not too distant future,” Rattner says.

That’s going to move Intel into closer competition with RF chip companies such as Texas Instruments and Broadcom, says Kevin Krewell an analyst with semiconductor consulting firm The Linley Group.

In the long run, that could also mean better phones for everyone. “Ultimately it would reduce the chip count on the cell phone, which would reduce the cost and the complexity of manufacturing of the phone and improve battery life,” Krewell says.

But it’s not easy to do one of these wireless system-on-a-chip designs. Wireless radios and CPUs aren’t exactly ideal roommates. Both parties emit radiation that can mess with the other, in the same way that a calculator near an AM radio can distort sound. “This radiation seeps into the RF module and corrupts the data,” says Hossein Alavi, director of Intel’s Radio Integration Lab. “The closer they are, the more interference is going to go to them.”

Radio wave emissions can also mess with the microprocessor, Alavi adds.

To fix this, Intel has had to come up with noise canceling and radiation-shielding techniques for the chips.

Intel has even worked out techniques for putting radio antennas on-chip, but it isn’t talking about them for another year or two.



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